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Why Cockatiels Are More Than Just A "Starter Bird"

Cockatiels are cute and great pets, for beginners and experts.

Katie ten Hagen


Cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus) have a reputation as a starter bird, which can be both a blessing and a curse. They are a really great bird for first-time parrot owners, and this gets them a lot of love. But this label also seems to give people the idea that once you’ve gotten some experience, you can "upgrade” to a larger bird. People have had cockatiels and later they want something "better,” which is entirely unfair to the ’tiels. 

Cockatiels are extremely popular because they are affectionate, readily available, not too loud and not very expensive. The only lower-priced parrot is a budgerigar (budgie/parakeet), or possibly a lovebird. A ’tiel’s cost, depends on the breeder/store, the color and whether or not she was hand-fed. Hand-fed cockatiels make wonderfully affectionate pets that bond readily to their owners. They are also small (read: nonthreatening), and so can be good pets in families with well-behaved children — though children should always be supervised when handling any pet, especially a bird.

Cockatiels are not known for being very good talkers, but males are extremely good whistlers, and can pick up tunes and songs that you sing to them. Many males will also learn to say some things, though their voice may not be clear. While technically it is possible for females to learn to whistle or talk, it’s uncommon. Females are generally quiet birds, except when they are calling to their "flock” (i.e., you/the family). They are quieter than most parrots, but remember that "quieter than most parrots” can still be pretty darn noisy. Their calls are (usually) louder than budgies, though less frequent, as budgies tend to "chatter” for hours on end. I have, however, had people ask me where the "off” switch was on their male cockatiel.

Cockatiels, like budgies, also tend to be fairly calm, lower-maintenance birds. It is very uncommon for them to develop the behavioral issues that often plague bigger birds, like screaming, biting and feather-picking — and if a cockatiel picks her feathers, it may be a health issue. They do quite well left alone during the day while the family is away at work or school, as long as you provide them with toys and make sure to spend some quality time with them when you get home. Head scratches (where you rub under the feathers) are a favorite — ’tiels are notorious for begging shamelessly for those.

Give ’tiels a chance — people seem to think that the bigger, smarter birds are "the best,” and are quick to dismiss the so-called "starter birds.” But they really are excellent pets that are the perfect solution for someone who wants a quiet, affectionate, low-cost, and low-maintenance pet. "I’ve lived with cockatiels for years,” said Lisa Bono, an associate certified parrot behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and owner of the avian store Platinum Parrot in Barnegat, N. J., "and I think they’re the perfect parrot.”

Cockatiels can be affectionate, loving companions for anybody, whether they’re new or experienced owners. A cockatiel that has bonded with her owner generally would like nothing more than to ride around on his or her shoulder all day (with some time set aside for head-scratches, of course). Also keep in mind that this starter bird can easily live for 20 years, with some reported living to 40.

Cockatiel Mutation Colors
Lutino: The bird has no gray pigment, leaving an entirely white and yellow bird with orange cheeks.

Cinnamon: The gray on the body is a lighter, brownish gray.

Whiteface: No yellow or orange pigments, so the bird is entirely gray and white; males will develop a bright white face, as opposed to a bright yellow face.

Pied: There are splotches of yellow interspersed throughout the gray — cockatiels can be "heavy pied,” with more than 50-percent yellow, or "light pied,” with more than 50-percent gray.

Pearl: A scalloping of yellow or white along the edges of the gray feathers; males will lose the pearling after their first molt (though they can still pass it on to their offspring) and look normal afterward, while females will retain it their whole lives. This makes pearl cockatiels uniquely sexually dimorphic among the birds with color mutations.

Others: There are also some more obscure mutations like yellow-cheek, pastel-face, silver and fallow. A cockatiel can also have almost any combination of these traits, making them all very unique. My cockatiel, for instance, is a cinnamon (heavy) pied. You can also have pearl pied, white-face pied or white-face lutino (giving you a bird that is completely white), to name a few examples.

You’ll have no trouble finding a color mutation cockatiel, as they have become so common. You may find it difficult to find a normal gray cockatiel however!

Dusty Birds
Cockatiels — as well as other birds in the cockatoo family and African greys — have dusty feathers, as opposed to the oily feathers of most other parrots. This dust will quickly coat everything in the room if you’re not careful. Allergy sufferers should be cautious about purchasing a cockatiel (or other dusty bird), as they can be more of a trigger than other birds. This dusty coating also means you should not use the bird bath sprays that are sold for "parrots,” as these are geared toward the birds that oil their feathers. A weekly bath could also be a good way to cut down on the dust for allergy sufferers. If you want to bathe your bird, use plain water or a spray designed specifically for powdery birds. Some birds really enjoy baths, while some do not — fortunately, most cockatiels love to bathe.

Want to learn more about cockatiels? Check these out articles:

Top 10 Cockatiel Questions Answered
How To Gain A Cockatiel's Trust

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Posted: November 25, 2014, 12:00 p.m. PDT

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